As we celebrate this last Christmas of the millennium, we view a world everywhere much disjointed and frayed – hardly a fit kingdom for the Prince of Peace, whose coming to Earth we commemorate. We point to two far-removed places, each fraught with significance for the deepest meanings of freedom, to examine our conflict-riven world – the birthplace of Jesus Christ, whom we honor as Our Savior, and the birthplace of the American Revolution.
This week in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, penned his traditional Christmas letter, saying, “We celebrate Christmas this year, with its message of peace, which we live in times of suffering and lack of peace.” Associated Press described the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago, as today a “ghost town.” The typical displays are gone, no Christmas lights comfort the darkness.
His Beatitude, Patriarch Sabbah, reported Bethlehem, the “center of our celebrations … is under siege and experiencing famine. Its residents cannot leave it, nor can the visitors enter it. …Pilgrims this year will not share with us the midnight mass. …In Bethlehem, the Savior has been born. From Bethlehem, from amidst our sufferings and prayers, we ask God Almighty for the salvation of the whole world.”
And two weeks ago in Lexington, Massachusetts, site of the 1775 battle on Lexington Green called “the shot heard round the world” – which started the Revolutionary War – a federal judge upheld a local ordinance banning Nativity displays there. Every year from 1920 through 1972, the town has maintained depictions of the Holy Family on the Green. From 1973 until last year, local religiously affiliated organizations have sponsored and maintained the town’s Nativity display.
Lexington Selectman Peter D. Enrich stated the real purpose of the ban: “What we’re trying to do is preserve the Green and keep it out of control of groups who want to express religious beliefs that conflict with its historic battle for freedom.”
But, as Chuck Colson analyzed the historical ignorance of the selectman’s comments: “The truth is that the minutemen – local merchants and farmers who stood on that village green to repel the red-coated British invaders – were also motivated by their deepest religious convictions. Pastors in Boston and throughout New England argued that the Revolution was justified in part because King George and the British government were depriving the colonists of religious freedom – even imposing the Church of England on them. The Revolution was more than just a reaction to taxation without representation; it was also about the right to freely worship God. What a supreme irony! On the very ground on which our forefathers stood to defend liberty and create a new country, the very thing they fought and died for is being suppressed in the name of political correctness.”
In the Holy Land and Lexington, this year there are no Christmas observances as those were celebrated in years past.
Historically, the actual year of Christ’s birth is thought to be between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C., at the end of Herod’s reign. The first mention of Christmas as a formal Nativity feast occurred in a Roman almanac dated A.D. 336. The day we celebrate Christ’s birth, December 25th, was not chosen on the basis of historical evidence but rather to replace the pagan festival natalis solis invicti, the birth of the sun god Mithras, at winter solstice.
The Christmas star that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem may have been any of a number of recorded astronomical events coinciding with the likeliest dates of that first Christmas. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12 B.C., and ancient Chinese texts note “exploding” stars, or novas, observed in both 4 and 5 B.C. Exceptionally bright planetary conjunctions occurred in 2, 6, and 7 B.C.; among these, the most promising candidate for the Holy Star was the triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 B.C.
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah, that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light….” Clearly, well before the birth of Jesus, humans longed for light in the days of greatest darkness. Early Christians selected December 25th for the Nativity feast to proclaim that Jesus Christ was the real Light of the World, the true “Sun of Righteousness,” as well as the Messiah foretold in Jewish faith. As Jesus later said, he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets of Judaism, but to fulfill them, and so he also fulfilled the deepest human longings expressed in other traditional celebrations. And we Christians believe these aspects of our human nature are not merely enduring, but eternal – because we humans are all created in the image of Eternal God.
Our American Christmas heritage derives, like so much else, from the mingled Christmas traditions of immigrants from many lands, with differing religious beliefs and customs of worship and celebration. Our name for this Holy Day arises from the old English Cristes Maesse, or Christ’s Mass, and as the name suggests, the holiday was first observed in Early America among the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians who settled predominantly in the Middle Atlantic colonies and the South. Influenced by Puritanism and Calvinism, the New England Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists looked askance at a celebration they deemed based on “heathenistic traditions.” New England colonial authorities outlawed Christmas from 1649 until 1658. The General Court of Massachusetts in 1659 set a fine of five shillings per offense, punishing the observance “of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way.” Contemporaneously, the Assembly of Connecticut forbade the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments.
Peter Kalm, wrote on Christmas Day 1749, about Philadelphia’s holiday: “Nowhere was Christmas Day celebrated with more solemnity than in the Roman Church. Three sermons were preached there, and that which contributed most to the splendor of the ceremony was the beautiful music heard to-day….Pews and altar were decorated with branches of mountain laurel, whose leaves are green in winter time and resemble the (cherry laurel).”
Philip Fithian, of colonial Virginia, recorded in his diary entry for December 18, 1773: “When it grew to dark to dance….we conversed til half after six; Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.”
Fithian’s Christmas Eve in 1775 diary entry from Staunton, Virginia, described other common pastimes of the holiday celebration: “The Evening I spent at Mr. Guys–I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns–I myself was entertaind; I felt myself improvd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth–So much divine Exercise.” But his 1775 Christmas Day entry noted the vastly different observances of the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians: “Christmas Morning–Not A Gun is heard–Not a Shout–No company or Cabal assembled–To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate– People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.”
The first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday was Massachusetts in 1856. Although, as late as 1886, an American Methodist newspaper termed Christmas a day “on which more sin and sacrilege and pagan foolishness is committed than on any other day of the year.” Nevertheless, by the Civil War era, most of our shared Christmas traditions were set, and the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured a drawing of encamped soldiers receiving Christmas gifts from home. Nearly all Americans (96%) celebrate Christmas today in some form or another.
At times during these seasons, we Christians may feel much like General George Washington did during the early years of the Revolutionary War. The so-called Christmas Campaign successes of 1776 at Trenton and Princeton were presaged by Washington’s writings of December 18: “If every nerve is not straind to recruit the New Army with all possible Expedition I think the game is pretty near up….No Man I believe ever had a greater choice of difficulties & less the means of extricating himself than I have–However under a full perswation of the justice of our Cause I cannot but think the prospect will brighten.” But these surprising victories were followed a year later by the Revolutionary Army’s retreat to Valley Forge, the trail marked by bloody footprints in the snow. Washington’s discouragement was evident in his writing of “A character to lose– an estate to forfeit– the inestimable blessing of liberty at stake– and a life devoted, must be my excuse,” and about how “it was much easier to draw up remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire-side, than to occupy a cold bleak hill, and sleep under frost and snow, without clothes or blankets.”
We in this country were given a great gift, at great cost, in the principles of liberty and self-government handed down to us from our Founding Fathers. But we may already have squandered this heritage beyond recovery. The choices soon to be before us may be limited to these – dying on our feet, living on our knees … or praying on our knees. Religious liberty, after all, was the true cornerstone of our Revolution.
We Christians believe that Christmas was a necessity because our hearts are deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and unfathomably so. Christmas addresses the duality of our human nature. We are so depraved, God had to mount a personal rescue mission on our behalf; we are so valuable, He considered sacrificing Himself worth the exchange. Only a Gift would suffice to redeem such creatures into freedom….
Our particular individual sins, which Jesus was born to die for, are revealed best in the recesses of an illuminated heart. Our corporate sins in this nation have been many and grievous these recent years, and especially so against our fellow countrymen these past months. We have not even contemplated repentance – much less reckoning out the restitution that must be repaid to set things right again.
If we cannot join together to freely acknowledge and worship the True Source of forgiveness and redemption, then our corporate repentance and reconciliation to the Truth must remain impossible. As Chuck Colson summed up the situation in Lexington (and by extension, in so many other locations throughout our country): “Well, the crèche follies will likely continue until people wake up to the fact that the tyrants of today are more dangerous than the tyrants of 1775. At least then they wore red coats, and you could see them coming.”
Or, as William Penn noted, “Men must be governed by God or they will be ruled by tyrants.” We either kneel before the Baby Jesus as our one true King, or we will bow to another master.
The Wise Men followed the Holy Star to lay gifts, symbolic of His life, before the Baby Jesus: gold, because He was a king; frankincense, as he was a divine king; myrrh, to foreshadow that His suffering and death would be our preservation.
The miracle is that so much of Christmas has endured into our time, celebrated still in its full glory and significance, despite its central paradoxes, so strange to our ears, of the Gift beyond reciprocation: God born in Man, Eternity captured in Time, and Light piercing the Darkness, to reveal a Truth at the heart of the Universe.
And the choice set before people has always been this simple – choose life or death; worship God or humankind; live free or chafe in chains. We have only to follow the Star and accept the Gift.
To mark Christmas 2000, the Christian patriarchs and spiritual leaders in the Holy Land have crafted a joint message that is as applicable to our land as theirs, that “our people will not enjoy many of the customary Christmas celebrations in this land this year. …We have heard and accepted the Gospel of the peace of Christ and we are his witnesses and ambassadors who are entrusted with the message of reconciliation. …[T]his very hope may become an in-breaking of light and a resurgence of faith. …[So that] we, not unlike the shepherds, can go forth into the darkest of nights, glorifying and praising God who came to save human kind and to fill the earth with justice and peace.”
“A Merry Christmas to you all! Long live the true King!”